October 14, 2020

The politics of commercials

If you're like me, you've spent the last couple of months watching television with the remote close by your side, all the better to mute those interminable political commercials polluting the airwaves. It's not just that they're negative and ham-fisted; they lack style, panache, whatever that je ne sais quoi is that makes a moment memorable. . .

(Pauses to mute television.) 

Sorry about that; I can't even get away from them long enough to write this. Of course, if we're being honest, most commercials are like that nowadays. But, like other forms of advertising, it wasn't always this way. If political commercials weren't necessarily memorable, they were at least watchable, even to people who don't agree with the candidate in question. A few years ago I did a more extensive rundown of such commercials, but I thought I'd look back at some of my favorites, the ones that I admire for the way they were done. Whether or not I go along with them, or support the candidate, is not the point. In fact, I hope you'll appreciate that I'm not trying to be political here at all. . .

(Pauses to mute television, more angrily this time.) 

Now, where was I? Oh yes—watchable political commercials. As I said, this is a non-partisan issue, so much so that I'm not insuring both parties are represented equally. In fact, let's start off with one of the most innocuous commercials of all, a 1960 ad for John F. Kennedy. It's upbeat, just like the candidate.

Kennedy's successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, ran this ad in 1964. It's not so upbeat; in fact, it's perhaps one of the most devastating commercials of any kind ever shown. As far as being influential, it's right up there with the "1984" commercial by Apple, and like that one, it was only shown once. It is, of course, the "Daisy" commercial.

Richard Nixon's commercials in 1968 utilized voiceovers from his 1968 convention speech combined with an artful montage of images designed to drive home the point. They conclude with a brilliant slogan, "This time vote like your whole world depended on it." It not only conveys the importance of the election, it's a subtle reminder of 1960—and a chance to make amends.

Jimmy Carter was a virtual unknown prior to his 1976 campaign, even stumping the panel as the Mystery Guest on What's My Line? It was important for him not only to build name recognition, but to convince voters that his Democratic party wouldn't be like George McGovern's, and his leadership wouldn't be like Gerald Ford's.

The 1984 reelection campaign of Ronald Reagan had two of the most famous—and most effective—commercials: "The Bear in the Woods" and "Morning in America." Both present a convincing case for reelecting the man who'd brought America back, and kept America safe.

I'll end with what may be—no, why pussyfoot around—what is my favorite political commercial of all time. It's from the Israeli elections of five years ago, featuring PM Benjamin Netanyahu.

Now this is a commercial. It doesn't matter what you think of Bibi Netanyahu or his politics. It's original, it humanizes him, it has the potential to make undecided voters smile. Why in the world American candidates don't try something like this I'll never know.

(Pauses to mute television, very irritated.) 

As politics becomes ever more virtual and politicians ever more remote, it would behoove candidates today to create commercials that try to connect with voters in a human way. Of course, with politics also becoming ever more polarized, the odds of that may be somewhat remote. Which leaves our campaigns nasty and brutish, but, unfortunately, not short enough.

(Starts to mute television, then decides "The hell with it" and turns it off.) TV  

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